Whenever visitors to the Georgia Visitor Information Center on Interstate 20 at the Savannah River ask about the late James Brown, there is one person on the desk who knows more about him than just about anyone else.
And that’s because James Crawford knew the famous showman from growing up in Toccoa, Ga., where Brown lived for awhile and being Brown’s road manager from about 1963 to 1967 when Brown exploded on the worldwide music scene.
“Every time you would see Mr. Brown in that period, you’d also see me, because I had the briefcase with all the money,” Crawford said last week. “Mr. Brown taught me everything I knew about booking travel arrangements, dealing with the public and handling the money on the road. He ran a really strict ship.”
Crawford also said that he was an opening act singing with Brown’s backup group The Jewels and was the one who introduced JB to his second wife, Deidre (“Dee Dee”) Jenkins, at a show in Baltimore, Md.
Crawford and the rest of the center’s Georgia Department of Economic Development staffers are hosting Georgia On My Mind Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, July 12.
“We are inviting all of our tourism partners to come spend a fun-filled day with us,” said center manager Keri Ogletree.
Anyone from the Augusta area, and drop-by I-20 travelers, can come and enjoy the free food and souvenirs (such as key chains) from tourism and business promoters throughout the state.
Among the confirmed participants will be the Atlanta Braves, Waffle House, Madison-Morgan Wedding Association, Historic Augusta, Meadow Garden, Somewhere In Augusta, Savannah Rapids Visitor Center, Hard Rock Atlanta, Babyland General, Augusta Canal and hotels and convention and visitor bureaus from all over Georgia.
“We get around 700 to 800 cars for a busy Friday during our normal operating hours from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.,” Ogletree noted. “So I would say we will have around 350 to 400 visitors from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday.”
Staffer Crawford said he usually does not bring up his close association with James Brown unless it comes up in conversation with center visitors.
“I try to keep out of it,” he commented. “We have a large picture of his statue downtown, and, when someone asks about the statue or about him, then sometimes I’ll elaborate.”
Crawford moved to Augusta in 2007 when a subsidiary of the Bank of America he was working for in Charlotte, N.C., wanted him to move to San Antonio, Texas. He decided instead to move to Augusta to be closer to his oldest sister, Helen Smith.
Brown and Crawford’s father were good friends in Toccoa about the time that Brown and singer Bobby Byrd and other Toccoa musicians were transforming a local gospel group in what would become The Famous Flames legendary rhythm & blues group.
Crawford, in fact, for awhile sang lead vocals with Byrd in another group that Byrd had called The Drops of Joy.
It was at a boat trip show in Washington, D.C., that Crawford dropped by to visit Byrd, and Byrd told him that Brown would love to see him also. Crawford then was selling classical music in a record shop in D.C.
“Mr. Brown called me ‘Little Crawford,’ since he knew my father, and he said, ‘Little Crawford, do you want to come and work for me?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ and he said, ‘Well, meet me at our hotel tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock and go with us. We flew that morning to his next show in Indianapolis, Ind.
“I had never been on a plane in my life, and I was scared to death but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”
When drummer and money man Nat Kendricks left Brown’s show, Brown put Crawford in charge of collecting payment from show promoters and handling other financial and touring arrangements.
“I was there in the lean years before the superstar James Brown came about,” Crawford said. “He was making about $750 on a regular night and had to pay the band and travel expenses out of that. But when (his hit single) Cold Sweat came out, his price literally jumped overnight to $5,000 to $6,000. Then he decided if a promoter could make that kind of money, we should book our own shows, and we did.”
Crawford eventually came off the road and went to work in the New York City office of Brown’s main manager, Ben Bart, who was head of Universal Attractions, and kept working with Brown.
“I’d go into my office on Mondays,” Crawford related, “and go over all the dates with Mr. Brown for the week. And, if we were opening in Los Angeles or Chicago or wherever, I’d meet him there on Thursdays or the first show date of the week and work with him through the weekend. And then I’d fly back to the office to start it all over on Mondays.”
About 1987, Crawford left to form his own talent and booking agency.
Crawford said it took so much out of him when Brown died Christmas Day of 2006, and he just wanted to live the rest of his life quietly with those great memories.
But he said being at the Georgia Visitor Information Center has changed a lot of that, and now it makes him feel good to be able to talk about the world famous entertainer he once called his friend and boss.
TALKING AT THE LIBRARY: If you are in downtown Augusta on Saturday, July 13, I’ll be talking about James Brown and other famous entertainers to come out of this area at 2:30 p.m. in the first floor auditorium of the Augusta-Richmond County main library, 823 Telfair St. It’s free, and I’d love to see you.